We are excited to have the opportunity to publish this response to one of Time and Tide’s best-known features, E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, by one of our valued project contributors, Sarah Lonsdale. Re-reading this novel during lockdown, Lonsdale finds much in the Provincial Lady’s response to adversity to keep her spirits up, and some forgotten shadows, too, that invite striking parallels between Delafield’s world and our world today.
This piece first appeared on July 9 2021 in the TLS.
Re-Reading E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a provincial lady
In November 1929, a sheaf of paper containing a new speculative serial story arrived on the desk of Lady Margaret Rhondda, the owner of the literary magazine Time and Tide. Attached to the story was a brief, handwritten note recommending the waste paper basket as a useful receptacle for unwanted short fiction.
The story, told in the first person and in the present tense, as entries in a diary, was certainly unusual. In staccato prose the narrator recorded trotting desperately brightly over a wafer-thin surface beneath which lurked, like trolls under a bridge, familial, social and financial disasters. It was funny – the rescued stray cat that had to be hidden because it started producing kittens, the cheese-eating in cupboards, the discussions with the children explaining mysterious unknowns like hell and kangaroos – but it was also strangely disquieting.
The unnamed narrator, living deep in the Devon countryside with her husband and two young children, was a serial liar who by the end of the first instalment had told at least half a dozen untruths: sometimes to avoid hurting others’ feelings, sometimes to deflect her husband’s ill temper but many times too, simply because it was easier to lie than to confront social awkwardness. From that first week, she would become one of the most popular fictional creations of the 1930s, entertaining her readers, who saw in her only too much of themselves, and guiding them through the ‘political decade’ of financial depression, rapidly mutating social relations and the rise of extremism.
And she has kept me going too, through the last 14 months, seeing my domestic, social and sartorial disasters and raising me. For my brick-dense bread-baking she gave me a broken oven and unexplained “misfortunes with the chops”; for my pyjama-top-Zoom call accidents she gave me hastily sheared, stitched and reworked evening gowns that were spotted immediately as démodé recyclables; for my mild bout of COVID-19 she gave me weeks in bed with measles that took her eyelashes and nearly took her sight. For my 400 days of grey fog tinged with moments of terror, she gave me the post-1929 Depression, the rise of both Communism and Fascism and the ghosts of the Great War.
E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, which first appeared in Time and Tide on 6 December 1929, is very funny, and famously so. She is a countrywoman who can’t play tennis and who is terrified of horses. Her trench warfare with the ghastly Lady Boxe, her silent battles with her unresponsive husband Robert and the intricate square dances performed with invisible knives, with neighbours and other parents provide laughter of delighted recognition. I first read the ‘PL’ twenty years ago, and returned to her during lockdown as a rest-cure from all those headlines, remembering her simply as a funny distraction.
What I hadn’t remembered, was the darkness in both her private, domestic world, and in the public world of politics beyond the ha-ha. The darkness of the wider political world is only glanced at but is always there in the PL’s almost tossed away asides, usually appended to a hilarious account of an awkward social encounter: “We talk about…” or “We discuss…”, followed by a list of apparently trivial topics – sciatica, the Women’s Institute, the exhibition at the Royal Academy; but always on the list is a topic that recognises that even down the deep-set quiet country lanes of Devon, life is interconnected. Ramsay Macdonald, All Quiet on the Western Front, Stanley Baldwin, the American Depression, anti-semitism and feminism are each, so very inconspicuously tossed, one by one into these lists of conversational topics. We might be laughing at another pointlessly brutal comment from Lady Boxe, or the narrowly avoided disaster when scissors are accidentally tossed into a tombola bran tub but out of the corner of one’s eye the horsemen of the 1930s are creeping across the lawn. Mentions of First World War memoirs, or other creative responses to the recent cataclysm remind us, too that while the horsemen of the 1930s are creeping closer, the riders of 1914-1918 have yet to leave the stage. The Diary coincided with the publication of a slew of WW1 memoirs and ‘Our Vicar’ has declared that the most recent offering, A Brass Hat in No Man’s Land (1930) by Brigadier-General Francis P. Crozier is “very painful and unnecessary”.
E. M. Delafield, born Edmée Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture in 1890, was the eldest daughter of Count and Mrs Henry de la Pasture, the title somewhat grander than their prospects although the family owned a large Victorian lodge in the Wye Valley, and also rented a townhouse in Belgravia. Mrs Henry de la Pasture was a popular author of both children’s and adult novels and so when her daughter began writing, the gender neutral “E. M.” and the surname “Delafield”, a playful translation of the French, was dreamed up as adequate disguise by Edmée’s younger sister Yoé. Her first novel, Zella Sees Herself was published by Heinemann in 1917, and was followed swiftly, in 1918 by The War Workers, based on her experiences as a V. A. D. orderly at Exeter Voluntary Aid Hospital. It was warmly reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, the reviewer coyly speculating that the author might be female on account of her using the word “camisole” accurately. The reviewer added that V. A. D.s from across the country would throng to the author, pressing her with their “gory hands in gratitude” at the grotesque caricature of Charmian Vivian, a tyrannical bullock of a woman, a template for all the Miss Trunchbulls of this world, who terrorised the young orderlies in her charge. In 1919 Edmée, now calling herself Elizabeth, married Paul Dashwood and they went to live in Kentisbeare, on the edge of the Blackdown Hills in East Devon. Paul became agent to the Bradfield Estate and employee of the Honourable Mrs Lottie Adams, for whose strident and demanding behaviour Elizabeth would find revenge in the creation of the ghastly Lady Boxe.
Revenge, along with regret, and, most richly, self-deception, all form strong psychological undercurrents in The Diary but they are carefully and quietly placed in the text so on first reading it’s easy to miss them. Delafield had honed this delicateness of touch in the short stories, and even shorter ‘sketches’ she wrote for Time and Tide and other literary magazines. At 1,000 words, they are darkly themed and brilliant smears of clarity and recognition. In one of these, ‘Retrospect’, a woman at the end of her life is regretting losing her sister over a man they both loved, and now “sitting alone, in the evenings”, illuminated by a small pool of light, she thinks to her childhood, when she and her sister were inseparable. She remembers the “cluck-clucking of the hens under the night-nursery window, and the strong scent of the mint growing in the sun, under the red brick wall of the kitchen garden”, smells and sounds combine to form a rope of senses that binds forever, regret to her past. In another, ‘The Tortoise’, a man has a satisfying conversation with an old fisherman he meets only to discover later that his ancient interlocutor was stone deaf but had perfected his responses over the years because all his visitors asked him the same questions.
This idea of the predictability of people’s actions and motivations is a persistent theme in The Diary. “Find that history, as usual, repeats itself”, the PL writes several times. Delafield was particularly concerned for the new generation of educated, professional woman, who, given a flash of exhilarating freedom between school and marriage, returned to the suffocating routines their mothers endured. A chief culprit was the lack of honesty from an older, to a younger generation of women, about the realities of marriage and motherhood. The PL is guilty of what she calls “my own extraordinary duplicity” in this regard. Delafield the author’s position can be found in the PL’s self-knowledge after she has lied her head off to an excited fiancée: “Intelligent women can perhaps best perform their duty towards their own sex by devastating process of telling them the truth,” she writes, ashamed of her own mendacity. And this is Delafield’s ultimate aim: to show her readers the truth about their lives, even if it is dressed up in a jolly, slippery carapace.
Sarah Lonsdale is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at City, University of London and author of Rebel Women between the Wars (MUP 2020) which includes a chapter on another Time and Tide contributor, Naomi Royde-Smith. Lonsdale’s biographical profile of Royde-Smith can be found in our Gallery of Key Figures here and her fascinating talk, at our Festival of Women Writers and Journalists, on Royde-Smith’s attempt to restyle society magazine The Queen along Time and Tide lines can be viewed here.